Snowballs: Intermixing Gentility and Frugality in Nineteenth Century Baking

By Rachel A. Snell

Carolina Snow Ball, https://savoringthepast.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/001snowball.jpg
Carolina Snow Ball, https://savoringthepast.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/001snowball.jpg

For most readers, snowballs likely conjure memories of childhood winter games or, perhaps, the small, rounded cookies covered with shaved coconut or powdered sugar often prepared around the winter holidays. Of course, there is also the Sno Ball snack cake (cream-filled chocolate cakes covered with marshmallow frosting and pink coconut flakes), first introduced to American supermarkets in 1947.[1] The association between snowball named treats and coconut is a decidedly mid-twentieth century convention, likely due to the increased affordability, availability, and accessibility (dehydrated flakes) of this tropical fruit. In the nineteenth century, snowballs took a decidedly different form depending on the region where they were produced, revealing the intermixing of gentility and frugality that occurred in rural or peripheral areas.

My research suggests there were several versions of Snowballs circulating within the Anglo-American world during the first half of the nineteenth century. These versions of Snowballs were essentially apple dumplings served with a sauce or icing. One particularly sumptuous version consisted of whole apples, cored and filled with orange or quince marmalade, covered in pastry and baked. Once removed from the oven, the Snowballs were covered in icing and set near the fire to harden.[2] This description of Snowballs comes from Colin Mackenzie’s Five Thousand Receipts, first published in England in 1823 with several expanded American editions between 1829-1860 that were readily available throughout North America. The comparative extravagance of this recipe is unsurprisingly since Mackenzie’s recipes appear to be aimed at a middle-class or higher audience with many elaborate and costly recipes.

 

Snow Balls, Colin Mackenzie’s Five Thousand Receipts (p. 182).
Snow Balls, Colin Mackenzie’s Five Thousand Receipts (p. 182).

The American variation on this dish, appearing in several sources such as an entry for Snowballs in Caroline Hayward’s manuscript recipe collection and a clipping pasted into an edition of Catharine Beecher’s Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book, is a dish consisting of peeled and cored apples, flavored with lemon peel, cinnamon, and cloves, and tightly wrapped in cooked rice. Hayward’s recipe instructs the cook to tie each apple “up in a cloth like dumplings.”[3] The finished product would resemble Mackenzie’s Snowballs, but with rice in the place of pastry. These recipes are sometimes labeled Carolina Snow Balls, a reference to the use of rice. Since this version did not require the butter and refined wheat flour required for pastry or the costly marmalade, it may have been more economical to produce for family suppers or those with limited means.

Caroline Hayward Recipe Book, 1815-1834, Massachusetts Historical Society.
Caroline Hayward Recipe Book, 1815-1834, Massachusetts Historical Society.

The Frugal Housewife’s Manual, printed in Toronto in 1840, presents a related, but decidedly unusual version of Snowballs. A.B., the anonymous author of the Manual, undoubtedly had access to Mackenzie’s Snowballs recipe. Five Thousand Receipts was a major source for the Manual, nearly the entire cake section and many of the pudding recipes were adapted or copied from Mackenzie. Unlike the American versions, A.B. omitted the apples entirely. An unusual choice since apples would have been readily available in the Lake Ontario region. This incredibly simple recipe consists of balls of boiled rice, sifted with loaf sugar and served with “wine sauce is best with them, but butter and sugar with them is very good if they are kept warm.”[4] It is easy to imagine the source of the name; these balls of boiled rice covered with sugar glistening in the candlelight likely bore a striking resemblance to the snowballs manufactured by local children. It would be a very pretty dish and an economical one as well.

Snowballs FHM 1
Snowballs, The Frugal Housewife’s Manual (p. 9-10)
Snowballs, The Frugal Housewife’s Manual (p. 9-10)
Snowballs, The Frugal Housewife’s Manual (p. 9-10)

A.B.’s Snowballs were likely adapted to make the recipe better suited to regional cooking and entertaining habits. Her recipe for Floating Island, a popular nineteenth-century dish of French origin consisting of meringue floating on vanilla custard, has likewise been significantly altered to both simplify and economize the recipe. A.B. suggested serving her recipes for Floating Island and Snowballs together, which would produce a dramatic effect, Floating Island “is a very ornamental dish by candle-light, together with a dish of snowballs on the opposite part of the table; in exchange for a snowball you get a bit of floating island.”[5] Allowing the housewife to impress her guests with manageable effort. Thus, the recipe for Snowballs was tempered with frugality from the sumptuous and elaborate dish presented by Mackenzie, to the American variation that substituted cheap and plentiful rice, and finally A.B.’s version, which avoided expensive ingredients and time-consuming labor to produce a dish pleasing to both the eyes and the taste buds.

In this way, The Frugal Housewife’s Manual reveals a transition in regional foodways within the Ontario Lake region. At mid-century, recipe collecting was shifting from the practical and frugal recipes associated with subsistence farming in a frontier region to the recipes associated with status and gentility that signal established agriculture and the beginning of middle-class sensibilities about dining and entertaining. Recipe collections like The Frugal Housewife’s Manual allowed women to balance frugality and gentility in their cooking and entertaining. An example of the hybrid sociability identified by Catherine E. Kelly, A.B. and her community sought to imitate urban, middle-class social mores within the constraints of agricultural work rhythms and rural work-based sociability. For these women, gentility intermixed with frugality was the answer. While A.B. presents recipes that rely on imported luxuries (liquors, wine, citrus fruits, raisins, currants, and spices) and commercial products (saleratus, milled wheat flour, loaf sugar) that together suggest a comfortable family budget, economy is still the underlying theme. A.B. frequently notes recipes that are inexpensive to prepare or provides hints for preparing dishes less expensively, such as substituting or omitting rare and costly ingredients. She likely would have echoed Lydia Child’s advice to housekeepers to “prove, by the exertion of ingenuity and economy, that neatness, good taste, and gentility, are attainable without great expense.”[6]

Note: For those interested in attempting to make Snowballs in their own kitchens, Kevin Carter has an excellent post at Savoring the Past with instructions to make two versions and a discussion of rice’s connection to the American slave system.

[1] And we cannot forget the Baltimore Snowball, an iconic concoction of shaved ice and sweet syrup, often topped with marshmallow cream. More information about this local treat is available here.

[2] Colin Mackenzie, Five Thousand Receipts in all the useful and domestic arts (Philadelphia: James Kay, Jun. & Co., 1831), 182.

[3] Caroline Hayward Recipe Book, 1815-1834, Joseph H. Hayward Family Papers, Ms. N-2368. Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA 02215.

[4] A.B. of Grimsby, The Frugal Housewife’s Manual: Containing a Number of Useful Receipts Carefully Selected, and Well Adapted to the Use of Families in General (Toronto, Ont.: J.H. Lawrence, 1840), 10.

[5] A.B., The Frugal Housewife’s Manual, 9.

[6] Mrs. (Lydia Maria) Child, The American Frugal Housewife, Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy (New York: Samuel S. and William Wood, 1838), 6; Catherine E. Kelly, “‘Well Bred Country People’: Sociability, Social Networks, and the Creation of a Provincial Middle Class, 1820-1860” Journal of the Early Republic 19, no. 3 (1999), 451-479.

Having Their Cake: Ingredients and Recipe Collecting in the Nineteenth Century

By Rachel A. Snell

Between 1835 and 1870, Sarah L. Weld of Cambridge, Massachusetts collected twenty-three recipes for gingerbread. This repetition of recipes, particularly recipes for baked goods, was not uncommon in nineteenth-century recipe collections. In fact, it was the norm. In my last post, I offered three explanations for the prevalence of cake recipes in the manuscript cookbooks I study: evolving technology, new ingredients, and shifting social expectations that are indicative of changes in women’s work and roles over the course of the nineteenth century. The repetition of recipes for popular types of cake, like gingerbread, illuminates my third point: that changes in the availability and quality of ingredients influenced women’s recipe collecting. Sarah Weld’s collection of gingerbread recipes reveals how the availability of flour, sugar, and chemical leaveners transformed baking during her lifetime.[1]

Wheat flour, the basic ingredient for most baked items, was seldom used in early America. The prevalence of mildew rust on wheat crops lead early settlers to abandon growing wheat in favor of local and hardier grains and most daily baking relied on proprietary blends of rye flour, Indian (corn) meal, and small amounts of wheat flour. Most cooks saved costly wheat flour for fine cakes and pastry made for special occasions. In the mid-nineteenth century improved milling techniques, a growing transportation infrastructure, and the development of fertile agricultural land in the Canadian and American west along with the adoption of the hardier Turkey red wheat made wheat flour more available and accessible. Rather than growing their own wheat, consumers could purchase refined wheat flour by the barrel. Consequently, American wheat consumption soared.

Sugar, like flour, was an expensive commodity that became more accessible during the nineteenth century. Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, recipes relied on less expensive byproducts of sugar production like molasses and brown sugar to sweeten baked goods. The invention of a vacuum system of evaporation and the centrifuge made the production of refined white sugar more efficient and, consequently, lowered the price. As refined white sugar became more accessible, it was praised by domestic advisors like Sarah J. Hale as sweeter and of a finer texture than brown sugar and, therefore, best used in baking. By 1871, loaf sugar was replaced by granulated sugar preserving women from the labor of grinding their own sugar.

Engraving: American Baking Powder, c. 1855. McCord Museum. http://www.mccord-museum.qc.ca/en/collection/artifacts/M930.50.7.36
Engraving: American Baking Powder, c. 1855. McCord Museum. http://www.mccord-museum.qc.ca/en/collection/artifacts/M930.50.7.36

Chemical leaveners brought about the most visible transformation in American baked goods. These additives allowed women to make cakes more easily (less strenuous beating of ingredients) and more inexpensively by using smaller quantities of eggs and butter. Most significantly, chemical leaveners brought cakes to new heights and transformed their texture from dense, sweet breads to light and airy ones. The first of these, pearlash, stemmed from the Native American technique of combining potash, produced by leaching wood ashes, with the meal. This process, called nixtamalization, created an alkaline solution that released amino acids and niacin in the grain making the resulting product more nutritious. Further, since corn will not react with yeast, the potash provided a small amount of leavening. Innovative American cooks developed a concentrated form of potash called pearlash that when combined with an acidic substance like sour milk, citrus, or molasses would create a quick and reliable leavening agent.

Beginning in the 1840s, pearlash would be slowly supplanted by chemical leaveners that improved the leavening properties of pearlash: saleratus, cream of tartar, and baking powder. Saleratus or baking soda sped up the chemical reaction that produced carbon dioxide in baked goods and yielded more consistent results. Cream of tartar helped activate the baking soda and neutralize the unpleasant alkaline aftertaste left by the soda. In the 1850s, the process of baking was further streamlined by the introduction of baking powder, which combined baking soda and cream of tartar into one product.

"Lafayette Gingerbread" from Eliza Leslie, Seventy-five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats (1828).
“Lafayette Gingerbread” Seventy-five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats (1828).
"New York Gingerbread" The Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1912)
“New York Gingerbread” The Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1912)

Together, changing technology and ingredients revolutionized cooking during the nineteenth century. The yeast-raised cakes of the past never entirely vanished from American cookbooks (Election Cake remained a perennial favorite), but chemically leavened butter and sponge cakes largely supplanted their popularity. Recipes for gingerbread from Eliza Leslie’s classic Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats (1828) and The Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1896) by Fannie Merritt Farmer reflect these changes in the process of baking. Technology that made baking easier along with improved ingredients transformed the appearance of baked goods, particularly cakes. As refined sugar and wheat flour became more affordable and chemical leaveners became more reliable, dessert became increasingly more elaborate. In the 1870s and 1880s, layer cakes dominated American baking filled first with jelly and later with caramel, chocolate, fruit, or nut fillings. During the second half of the nineteenth century, the variety of cakes increased exponentially with confections named White Mountain Cake, Devil’s Food, Angel Cake, Moonshine Cake, Chocolate Marshmallow Cake, Boston Cream Pie, and Mocha Cake. Thus, women not only collected cake recipes for the practical reason that technology and ingredients had changed, but also because they were so many new and exciting options for cake baking.

 

Further reading:

Nancy Carlisle and Melinda Talbit Nasardinov with Jennifer Pustz, America’s Kitchens (Boston: Historic New England, 2008).

Abigail Carroll, Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal. New York: Basic Books, 2013.

Alice L. McLean, Cooking in America, 1840-1945 Daily Life through History, Edited by Ken Alba. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006.

Sandra L. Oliver, Food in Colonial and Federal America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005).

Susan Williams, Food in the United States, 1820s-1890 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006).

 


[1] Sarah L. Weld, Cookbook, 1835-1870. Schlesinger Library. 010117969.

Teaching Recipes as Literary Practice and the Practice of Transcription

By Amy L. Tigner

Students from the University of Texas, Arlington cook using early modern recipes.  Photo courtesy of the author.
Students from the University of Texas, Arlington cook using early modern recipes. Photo courtesy of the author.

As a founding member of Early Modern Recipe Online Collective (EMROC)—an international group whose main objective is to transcribe early modern receipt book manuscripts and upload them onto an open, searchable database—I, along with my EMROC compatriots, wanted to create a labor force to increase the number of transcriptions available to the public.  As many of us teach at universities, we thought it would be a great idea to conceive of classes in which a portion of the workload would contribute to this digital humanities project.  I have to be honest, that at first, I thought of my students as a kind of slave labor, but Rebecca Laroche (see previous blog post in this series) quickly reminded me of the value for students of what we were trying to accomplish as scholars ourselves.  After all, we are in the process of building a new source of knowledge and making viewable to the masses what had previously been seen only by the lucky few. Also, such a process would in fact teach the students valuable skills that they could use if they continued in the profession, or, if not, they could parlay into other pursuits outside academia.  From a traditional point of view, students would need to learn paleography, a necessary skill for any archival work. As more and more libraries are digitizing their manuscripts, there will be quite a lot of this kind of scholarly work for years to come.  Additionally, students would learn how to code their transcriptions into XML in order to upload their work to the database, Textual Communities, which is hosted by the University of Saskatchewan; this skill is clearly transferrable to the outside world.

The first class I taught that incorporated this project was a senior seminar for English majors at the University of Texas, Arlington, in spring of 2013.  The course was entitled “Recipes for Literature/Literature of Recipes.” I have a previous post that details the course, and students in the class also posted blogs about their discoveries in transcribing Wellcome MS108, a receipt book written by Jane Barber.  As this course was really successful (students generally loved working on the project), I thought I would take it to the next level and have graduate students contribute.  So the following year, I taught a class entitled “Food, Women, and Manuscript Culture.”  The course was designed to change students’ conception of the “literary” by broadening the meaning to include household writing, and in particular recipes. The graduate students (like the undergrads) first had to learn how to decipher seventeenth-century handwriting, so I (like Rebecca Laroche) had students use the Cambridge online paleography course, a site that has progressively difficult handwriting examples from the period.

Students from the University of Texas, Arlington cook using early modern recipes.  Photo courtesy of the author.
Students from the University of Texas, Arlington cook using early modern recipes. Photo courtesy of the author.

I found in both classes group work was key, as students get easily frustrated with the kind of work, especially as most were inexperienced with difficult and archaic handwriting. As some students naturally have a greater aptitude for transcription than others, they were to become teachers—good practice for many whose future plans include teaching. When it came to coding, which was a completely new world for me, students had to use problem-solving skills or often relied upon other students to help them. This collaborative atmosphere in the class created a greater sense of intellectual community—and fun.  Another interesting thing happened, however, in the work of transcription and later of coding: students had to slow their reading down, often to the level of deciphering individual letters, in order to read the text.  Thus transcribing and coding turned into close reading, causing students to dig deeper to find meaning.  We often ask students to read a text slowly and carefully, but more and more students are losing the patience to read in this manner. Our experience with the Internet, and with media more generally, trains us to read quickly and to skim the surface but rarely to be contemplative. This digital humanities project brings together traditional scholarly pursuits with twenty-first century technology to contribute to a growing a body of knowledge about the past.

Old-Fashioned Recipes, New-Fashioned Kitchens: Technology and Women’s Recipe Collecting in the Nineteenth Century

By Rachel A. Snell

When I first started exploring nineteenth-century manuscript cookbooks, I was astonished by the prevalence of recipes for cake in these sources. I expected cookery in the past to be more practical, concerned primarily with preserving, providing calories, and making do with what was available. Printed cookbooks, such as those authored by Lydia Maria Child, Sarah J. Hale, Catharine E. Beecher, and others, that emphasized frugality, efficiency, and thrift supported my assumptions. Early in my research process, I struggled to reconcile what I perceived as the inconsistency between thrift and efficiency obsessed printed cookbooks with manuscript collections nearly entirely devoted to cakes, puddings, cookies, and other baked goods. Now, hundreds of cookbooks later, I’m prepared to offer three explanations for the prevalence of cake recipes in the manuscript cookbooks I study: evolving technology, new ingredients, and shifting social expectations that are indicative of changes in women’s work and roles over the course of the nineteenth century. In this post, I’d like touch upon the technological innovations that influenced women’s recipe collecting.

Frontispiece showing two women working in a kitchen. Mrs. E.A. Howland, The American Economical Housekeeper and Family Receipt Book (Cincinnati: H.W. Derby & Co., 1845)
Frontispiece showing two women working in a kitchen. Mrs. E.A. Howland, The American Economical Housekeeper and Family Receipt Book (Cincinnati: H.W. Derby & Co., 1845). Library of Congress.

Kitchens changed dramatically over the course of the nineteenth century, as figures 1 and 2 demonstrate. Until the 1850s, most women cooked over an open hearth as generations of cooks before them. Ruth Schwartz Cowan described the cookstove as “the single most important domestic symbol of the nineteenth century” and there is no denying the adoption of the cookstove transformed how women prepared dinner and what was served.[1] Cookstoves expanded the repertoire of the cook to allow baking, boiling, roasting, and other cooking techniques to occur simultaneously. No longer did the amount of wood and time necessary to adequately heat a brick oven limit baking to once or twice a week. Women could, if they desired, bake something for dessert every day. Further, the dry, relatively constant heat produced by the cookstove reacted well with chemical leaveners allowing for the creation of layered cakes and other elaborate desserts.

“Prang's aids for object teaching--The kitchen” (Boston : L. Prang & Co., c1874). Lithograph. Library of Congress.
“Prang’s aids for object teaching–The kitchen” (Boston : L. Prang & Co., c1874). Lithograph. Library of Congress.

Long before Fannie Farmer advocated level cup measures, cookbook authors recommended the standardization of measures within individual kitchens. Using the same coffee cup for measuring ingredients, even it wasn’t exactly the same volume as the cup used by one’s neighbor, improved results and was more economical. By the mid-nineteenth century, women could purchase vessels specifically manufactured for measuring ingredients, like the objects pictured in figure 3. Over time, the recipes in manuscript and printed cookbook adapted to new methods of measuring as pounds of flour were replaced by cups and a piece of butter the size of a walnut by a tablespoon.

Metal Measures, Late 19th Century. Michigan State University Library.
Metal Measures, Late 19th Century. Michigan State University Library.

As women increasingly worked alone in the kitchen with husbands leaving the home for work and children occupied by school and play, a wide variety of laborsaving devices appeared on the market to help ease their labor. The mechanized eggbeater, first patented in 1856, made the task of beating eggs for cake recipes considerably easier. Before the invention of the eggbeater, eggs were frequently beat using a whisk assembled from tree branches and preparing the whites and yolks for a sponge cake might require hours and great endurance. Cookbook author, Eliza Leslie, described the procedure for properly beating eggs in The Lady’s Receipt-Book,

“Persons who do not know the right way, complain much of the fatigue of beating eggs, and therefore leave off too soon. There will be no fatigue, if they are beaten with the proper stroke, and with wooden rods, and in a shallow, flat-bottomed earthen pan  . . . In beating them do not move your elbow, but keep it close to your side.”[2]

Prior to the availability and widespread use of commercial chemical leaveners, properly beaten eggs were essential to the creation of light, airy cakes. The ability of the mechanized eggbeater to produce five rotations of the wire blades with one rotation of the handle significantly eased the labor associated with preparing cakes. This innovation coupled with chemical leaveners and the improved quality of raw ingredients, would literally take cakes to new heights.

Eggbeaters, Late 19th Century. Michigan State University Library.
Eggbeaters, Late 19th Century. Michigan State University Library.

Thus, evolving technology altered the rhythm of women’s baking habits and eased the labor associated with the production of baked goods. Recipes from the 1850s onward reveal the influence of new technology and changing ingredients as cookbook authors reconfigured old-fashioned recipes to new-fashioned kitchens. This was part of the reason cooking schools became popular in the late nineteenth century and women shared recipes amongst their social circle or submitted recipe requests to the “Home Department” of their local newspaper: the fundamentals of cooking and baking has changed significantly and very quickly. A woman’s early training, the recipes she learned from her mother, and the recipes she collected in a manuscript cookbook as a young bride were increasingly obsolete. As women experimented and perfected recipes in the new system, it was natural to share and collect.

This blog post is excerpted from a talk given by the author at the Maine Historical Society August 12, 2014.


[1] Ruth Schwartz Cowan, A Social History of American Technology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 194.

[2] Eliza Leslie, The Lady’s Receipt Book (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1847), 193.